Student veterans will march in marathon-length desert course to honor late alumnus

Seven times, Mike Ruybal has faced 26.2 miles of desert terrain, mountains and sand. But when he heads to New Mexico again this weekend, he said his march will take on a new meaning.

The associate director of military and veteran student services will participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March in memory of U.S. Army Col. Melvin Rosen, a survivor of the infamous march who studied at GW after he returned home from World War II. He will also bring along two graduate students from GW.

The annual event commemorates the march in which the Imperial Japanese Army forced Filipino and American prisoners of war to trek across the Philippines, where hundreds of Americans died.

The course includes climbs as high as 5,400 feet and a three-mile stretch of soft sand, and many of the anticipated 14,000-plus participants will carry a 35-pound rucksack plus gear, food and water.

“I’m not going to quit,” said Sabrina Rigney, a graduate student and Air Force veteran who will participate in march for the first time this year. “If I have to crawl across the finish line, so be it.”

Col. Rosen, who earned a master’s degree in international affairs from GW, died in 2007 of heart disease. He is survived by his wife Olive Rosen, who invited the students to her home in Falls Church, Va. this month to show them her husband’s belongings.

“I consider it an honor that you would choose him to remember,” Olive Rosen said to the students in her husband’s study. “I think he would be delighted to know that there are some younger generations of people who are wanting to learn what happened back then and the experiences of the men who came back from that part of the world.”

The students and Ruybal connected with Col. Rosen’s family through the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.

The 25th annual memorial march in White Sands, N.M. brings together Bataan survivors, their families, veterans and civilians.

“This is going to be even more moving and powerful being around veterans and wounded warriors. Doing something in memory of someone else is [motivation], and it’s moving,” said Jeffrey Rapp, a Marine Corps veteran and graduate student.

Rapp has run four marathons before and said with each one, he is “a little worried about finishing always and not being completely broken at the end of it.” He hopes their participation in the march will help spread awareness on campus about the veteran community and war experiences like the Bataan Death March that are “slowly being forgotten,” Rapp said.

Ruybal, who was brought on by GW in 2012, said he was looking forward to seeing the students accomplish their first march.

“It’s just powerful to watch,” Ruybal said. “Ten years from now, they will still talk about the first time they [went].”

In his two years at GW, Ruybal has helped expand the veteran’s office with more staff and more support, including a specialized clinician at the University Counseling Center to support veterans’ needs.

GW has increasingly become a destination for students in the country’s Yellow Ribbon Program, with the University’s veterans population swelling 300 percent since Congress passed the Post-911 GI Bill in 2008. G.I. Jobs magazine has named GW one of the nation’s most-military schools for the last five years.

Olive and Melvin Rosen eloped six months after they met, and he was deployed a month later to the Philippines. They threw a wedding in 1947, five years after the Bataan march.

Col. Rosen was liberated from a Korean POW camp in September 1945. Twenty years later, while stationed in Korea, he took command of the area that once included the camp. His wife said the soldiers were told not to share their prisoner experiences.

“[It was almost 50 years later] that those who were still alive really felt that they could talk about what happened to them as prisoners of war,” she said.

The GW runners said their desire to preserve and honor the veterans’ memories will be an important motivation for them this weekend.

“We want to make sure his story doesn’t die out,” Ruybal said, adding that he hopes to make the trip annually with his students.

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